The Submersion of Japan
by Richard Kadrey
 

Susan Sontag once wrote that science fiction films are a genre of "catastrophe." Older science fiction films especially follow this model: WAR OF THE WORLDS, THINGS TO COME, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, and the endless stream of giant radioactive insect/animal movies of the 50s and 60s. And the formula still works. Annihilation is a sexy subject, one revisited in such recent blockbusters such as the TERMINATOR films as well as the ultimate catastrophe death-fest (so far), INDEPENDENCE DAY. Don't fool yourself that it was the uplifting images of family and a united world that netted this puppy a half-billion dollars. The filmmakers knew what people wanted. For months before its release, the single image that hammered movie and TV screens was a trailer featuring a gloriously exploding White House.

Disaster movies are related to science fiction films in this love of pure destruction. And like INDEPENDENCE DAY, the more familiar the objects being destroyed, the better. In fact, that's the real thrill of disaster films. The teams who put those together realized that you didn't have to go to Altair 4 or the future or the center of the earth to get a kick out of widescreen genocide. You could trap a pack of middle class types in a cruise ship as in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, or watch a bunch of rich creeps catch fire and fall out of skyscraper windows as in THE TOWERING INFERNO, or just drop the Hollywood Bowl and Mann's Chinese Theater on tourists and a gaggle of colorful losers as in EARTHQUAKE.

The Seventies were the heyday of the disaster flick. All the examples given above were released between '72 and '74. And while we tend to think of the disaster movie, with their all-star casts and big special effects budgets, as an American trash art form, we weren't alone in our thirst for cinematic auto-destruction. One of the most spectacular disaster films of the 70s came from Japan and, in typical Japanese fantasy fashion, didn't deal with killer bees, a meteor or some lousy little single-city earthquake. No, it was about the destruction of the entire country.

SUBMERSION OF JAPAN came out in 1975, toward the tail end of the disaster movie era. While it has a lot in common with American disaster movies, it's very much a product of Japanese culture. This is probably why it's never received a regular release in this country. A gelded version called TIDAL WAVE played here in the mid-seventies. Like GODZILLA before it, however, the US distributors took out most of the Japanese storyline, shot a lot of fake news footage with Lorne Greene (Raymond Burr was the gaijin voice-over in the U.S. GODZILLA), and just cut to all the cool destruction effects. While this might be cost-effective for bottomline film weasels, it entirely misses the kick of a movie like SUBMERSION OF JAPAN. It's all the differences, the stuff that was cut out, that make it interesting, from its slow pacing to its cultural paranoia to its apocalyptic ending, echoing both dreams of the Japan's volcanic origins and the A Bomb.

The movie begins quickly enough. A hotshot mini-submarine pilot takes a concerned scientist on a tour of the ocean bed that underlies Japan. They go down further and further, 10,000 leagues under the ocean and the country. A Jungian would point out the obvious imagery of the sub diving deep into the cultural unconscious of Japan itself, driven by characters who represent the twin poles of Action and Thought, but let's not get too symbolic yet. … What we get at the opening of the film is a spectacular tour of the deep Pacific. Then we hit something that's more like Dante. Bubbles and pools of heat roil from the ocean bottom. It looks like the scientist's worst fears might be true: the underwater foundation of Japan is shifting and crumbling, and the entire island is in danger of coming apart. What follows, and occupies most of the rest of the film, is the lurching action around what to do about a problem this grave, this massive.

Of course, nothing happens at first. No one believes the scientist. No one wants to believe him. Even his colleagues are skeptical. But volcanoes are starting to erupt all over Japan, including one that very nearly creams our mini-submarine pilot who is having a beach liaison with the daughter of a business partner, a la Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. The shots of the erupting mountain framed by the bodies of the startled lovers are gorgeous and charged with a doom-laden sexual tension.

When, after a series of even more spectacularly shot big city meltdowns makes it obvious that the scientist was right, and the public panic makes it mandatory for the government to act, they realize that there is nothing they can do to stop the destruction of their country. The only solution is to move Japan itself, via its population, elsewhere. But where?

Though I've been talking about SUBMERSION OF JAPAN as a disaster film, it's also very much a science fiction product. The fact that the science involved is geology and not, say, particle physics doesn't change anything. It's a scientific discovery — that the underwater foundation of Japan is shifting and crumbling — that sets the movie in motion and provides the device to keep the plot moving. More than that, though, SUBMERSION OF JAPAN resembles an old fashioned science fiction movie in the way its story is laid out.

Because its essential propellant comes from an almost invisible scientific process — the shifting of underwater tectonic plates — the movie is peppered with (and sometimes grinds to a halt for) Geology 101. Anyone who's ever seen a 50s science fiction flick knows about this gimmick. The Eminent Scientist calls together all the principles concerned with the Mysterious Thingee, such as the giant ants in THEM!, and shows slides or a bunch stock footage to explain What The Hell Is Happening. By educating the ignorant characters, the Eminent Scientist also brings us, the audience, up to speed so we can get on with the rest of the movie.

And its the rest of the movie that deviates dramatically from American disaster and SF movies. It's essential in both of those film forms for a Return to Normalcy at the end. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, after the audience is good and scared, our SF and disaster flicks like to go out on a the feeling that while we've been through quite a struggle, and even lost some good friends along the way, we're emerging stronger, better, but (and this is important) essentially unchanged. Not so for the Japan of this movie. It's kitty litter. Bye bye.

Japan's history is inseparable from the catastrophic films it produces. It's both the only country ever to be partially fried with atomic weapons and a country with a homogeneous population and a historically violent disregard for the populations its conquered over the centuries. In SUBMERSION OF JAPAN, when the prime minister begs other countries to take portions of Japan's 100 million person population, he isn't met with open arms. In fact, even after meeting with the UN, he can't get pledges for more than 10% of the population. It's not just the West that turns its back on Japan here, but the world. Their final solution to the problem is extremely Japanese: do nothing.

There is a kind of Buddhist existential streak that runs deep throughout Japanese society. It was there in the death embrace of Samurai, the kamikaze pilots of the WWII and bubbles up even now through the Yakuza, right wing extremist groups and doomsday groups such as Aum Shinrikyo. It's an extremely un-Judeo-Christian worldview, one that admits death as an alternative to life. Mix this with questions about national identity and you have the final idea that separates SUBMERSION OF JAPAN from its US counterparts: Is embracing the disaster is the answer to dealing with it?

Like all philosophical questions, of course, it's not finally answered, but played out by in various ways the characters themselves. And the entire population isn't wiped out, either. Just as the government had planned, a large chunk of the island's population is saved, spread out across the world. There's even a universally optimistic image at the end: the submarine pilot and his lover have both made it off the island. They are a world apart, but alive. Will they find each other? The implication is they will. So in the end, after 20 years of cultural changes since it was made and across a wide historical gap, certain values and dreams remain universal.

Video Search of Miami has made SUBMERSION OF JAPAN available, uncut and subtitled, in this country for the first time. Their print of the movie is letterboxed, with bright, easy-to-read subtitles. This is a gray market print, not a big budget commercial release. The colors in this print tend to be a little washed out, turning some of the darker scenes into a kind of pastel-backlit black and white. Still, it's very watchable and, if you want to see the real movie, the pure product, this is the place to go.

SUBMERSION OF JAPAN: $28 (add $2 for foreign shipping; $5 extra for non-VHS formats) ppd, from: Video Search of Miami, P.O. Box 16-1917, Miami, FL 33166; 305-279-9773; fax 305-598-5265; email: vsom@aol.com.


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